SAN FRANCISCO -- Launching one of the world's richest science prizes, a foundation created by Silicon Valley tech luminaries on Wednesday awarded $3 million each to 11 health researchers studying stem cells, genetics, cancer and other diseases.
The cash awards are more than double the size of those for the prestigious Nobel Prize. They were handed out at a San Francisco ceremony by the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, which was created by Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin and wife Anne Wojcicki; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan; and Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner.
Although other prizes target medical research, including the Lasker Award and Wolf Prize, "this prize is unprecedented," said Dr. Deepak Srivastava of the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco, where one of the recipients -- stem-cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka -- is partly based.
Yamanaka, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for his stem cell studies and currently is in Japan, "was thrilled" to be a recipient, Srivastava said. "This prize highlights how exciting and important discovery is in the life sciences. I'm hopeful that this will inspire young people to pursue a career in science," Srivastava said.
Zuckerberg agreed, saying, "Our society needs more heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers."
The prizes, which will be given to just five people annually in subsequent years, will recognize "excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life," according to a statement issued by the organization.
The fields of the winners range from "research in genetics to cancer to immunology and neurobiology," said Art Levinson, the foundation's chairman, who is also Apple's (AAPL) chairman and former CEO of Genentech.
While numerous organizations offer research prizes, the collaboration of tech titans is striking, according to Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
"It's unusual for these philanthropists to be working together," she said. Noting that the involvement of the Breakthrough founders might inspire other entrepreneurs to get involved with similar efforts, she added, "It's only now that we're beginning to see the younger ones assert themselves publicly."
Having the prizes financed by Silicon Valley also was significant in the view of Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe, which helps people analyze their genetic makeup,
"One thing that I'm always struck by in the valley is that people don't look at problems in the same way," she said. "There's this real encouragement from this tech world to get people to think big and really encourage and reward those scientists who are taking risks."
Picking the winners was a "tremendous responsibility," Levinson said, noting that prominent scientists and winners of other awards assisted with the choices. All of the recipients have agreed to serve on a selection committee to pick future winners. Candidates for the awards can be nominated by anyone, be any age and win more than once.
Milner said he'd like to see other executives donate to the foundation, saying what's been raised so far "is a good start."
The relatively large sums given each of the 11 researchers is impressive when compared with other philanthropic prizes, noted David Gollaher of the California Healthcare Institute, which represents biomedical companies.
"This is as far as I know the largest one in terms of money," he said. "It certainly raises the profile of life sciences, and anything that does that from my point of view is great."
Travis Blaschek-Miller of the life-science industry group BayBio said having two California researchers among the 11 recipients "demonstrates this region's leadership in innovation." In addition to Yamanaka, one of the prizes was given to Napoleone Ferrara, at UC San Diego.
Having stem-cell scientists among the recipients also was cheered by Dr. Ellen Feigal, senior vice president for research and development at the state's stem-cell program, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
"Awards like this help shine the spotlight on these scientists and give them well-deserved recognition," she said.
Contact Steve Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.
Here are the 11 researchers receiving $3 million prizes and the focus of their work:
Comparing research prizes
Compared with similar awards, the $3 million given to the 11 researchers Wednesday is unusually large.
The Breakthrough Prize in Life Science
What it's for: Recognizing excellence in research aimed at curing intractable disease and extending human life
Amount: $3 million per researcher
The Nobel Prize:
What it's for: Outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.
Amount: $1.2 million in the most recent award
MacArthur Fellowship (often called the Genius Award)
What it's for: Exceptional creativity and promise for important future advances
Amount: $500,000 paid over five years
What's it for: Radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity
Amount: The four granted so far range from $1.4 million for ocean oil-spill cleanup methods to $10 million for private, suborbital space flight. The $30 million Google Lunar X Prize for landing a privately financed spacecraft on the moon will be awarded in 2015.